Motivated by a love of styling, design, food and entertaining, Diana Yen knew she was meant for a creative career that allowed her to combine all of these elements into a singular vision. Through her various business endeavors and adventures, Diana came to establish her studio The Jewels of New York and go on to launch products, including a cookbook and upcoming textiles line. Today she shares a bit of her path into founding a successful studio and pursuing the work that satisfies her most. —Stephanie
photo by Britta Walsworth
Read the full interview after the jump…
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I started my business with my best friend, Lisel Arroyo in 2009. We both had backgrounds in home product design and cooked at our studio for fun. We started the business on a whim, basically the editors at Martha Stewart loved holiday cookies we had made and invited us to demo them on a show. They also asked us to provide them for sale, so we rushed around for a couple weeks, made a website, got our business license and hooked up with bakery to make the cookies. They sold out, but we decided that opening a bakery wasn’t for us.
We maintained the recipe section of our website and it led to some bigger job offers such as photo shoots and catering, It was a time during the economic decline, and my partner had lost her job. So I suggested that she continue to grow our business and see how it went. After two years of struggle we were finally able to establish ourselves.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
We knew that we were interested in food styling, lifestyle, and recipe consulting but didn’t know exactly how to define our business since it wasn’t a conventional set up. Looking back, I realize it was good we kept it open because it helped us discover what was in demand in the industry. The more that print magazines were shrinking, online content became more in demand and now that makes up for a big chunk of our studio work. Since we’re in NYC we also work with many luxury and fashion brands that are constantly looking for new ideas in food and entertaining.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Save as much money as you can and know that you will be working 24/7 for the first couple years. There wasn’t ever the perfect time to quit my day job, I worked 3 jobs at once to support the studio in it’s early growth. I kept working until
we had 2-3 regular clients and a couple of big jobs booked. It was still scary at the time, but that’s when it’s time to take the jump. I knew that if I didn’t give my studio my complete 100% focus, it would never grow and it would become a hobby.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Financially it was difficult, because I was able to make a senior design salary at the time. I had completed an expensive design education so it seemed crazy to make almost no money and work in food instead. But it challenged me and part of not knowing the future became very exciting. If you sit in an office cubicle doing work and receive a steady paycheck, you can foresee that in the next year or two you would be doing the same thing day in day out. Being your own boss means motivating yourself constantly towards new goals and challenges. It’s difficult to rely on your own voice sometimes, but it allows you to find out what you are really meant to be doing.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I learned that nothing can last forever. For me starting the business with my best friend when I was in my twenties, I really thought it would be the same way forever. I never thought too far down the road. But going into my thirties, I realized people’s paths can separate, marriage happens, kids, etc. After a couple years, my partner decided it was time to focus on a more stable family life and work path. She encouraged me to take over the studio that I had always loved and continue to grow it, so I did. I saw my own vision more clearly after that and it was a good thing.
I’ve learned that no matter how good or bad things are in business, it just comes and goes as it does in life. You can make a perfect business plan but it doesn’t mean that everything is going to go according to that. It’s important to be flexible.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
I have so many! It’s true when they say that the only way to succeed is to fail. I would say that there have been times when I’ve received huge jobs which is initially a good thing, but you don’t realize how much it takes upfront to execute the project (freelancers, equipment, special licenses, permits, lawyers, etc). One of my first big jobs put me into debt for a couple months, I had to pay out everyone else before me and it was a struggle to keep going. I had to beg and borrow to get through the next couple months. I remember calling my parents and telling them how I was such a failure and could barely pay my rent, instead they congratulated me! My mom said that it meant my business was growing and that it was becoming successful. I am lucky to have such cool supportive parents.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
For me, it was when I sold my cookbook. It was a difficult time, when my business partner and I split up. I found a sample of the cookbook we had designed together about a month into our business. We had completely forgotten about it and instead focused on catering and the jobs that were going to cover us financially. I asked her if I could shop it around and if I sold it we could finally work on something that brought out the best from us both, it would be something that we could make out of pure pleasure. Our work had been private for so long it was exciting to have something we could share with the public.
I was thrilled that the book was signed with Roost Books, Sara Bercholz the VP had been a longtime fan of our work. After visiting her family run publishing house in Boston, we knew that we were working with the right people. They completely supported our vision and worked so hard to make it beautiful.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I’d recommend getting good at making excel spreadsheets and streamlining your invoicing. Balancing your budget and getting paid are the most important parts! The creative part becomes easy after a little while, but I’m still always looking for ways to be more organized in the office.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Are you willing to commit to irregular hours and frequent emailing? There is no time where everything turns off so it requires a lot of dedication.
2. Are you willing to be flexible with your creative vision? Sometimes what you want to make isn’t what people need, it’s about finding the balance where you can have both.
3. Are you willing to do basic administrative duties, like filing your own paperwork, staying on top of taxes and legal documents? When you are starting a new creative business, it’s easy to underestimate how much time these tasks take.